by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published as "The Action of Mercy" in the Kenyon Review, Winter 1998; reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going
I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.... For me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that.
"The Fiction Writer and His Country"
This graceful, parable-like short story, with its precise, weighted language and its comically sympathetic rural Georgians Mr. Head and his ten-year-old grandson Nelson, is virtually unique in Flannery O'Connor's oeuvre, ending not in violent death, nor even in devastating irony, but with tenderness.
O'Connor's more characteristic prose fiction bristles with cruel and sometimes savagely funny observations; "The Artificial Nigger" is comedy of another order. Because they are an old man (Mr. Head at sixty behaves rather more like a man in his mid-seventies) and a young boy (though Nelson is a "miniarure old man"), the grandfather and grandson are presented as sinners of a mild, entirely human sort. Mr. Head is foolishly proud and vain ("Mr. Head could have said .... that age was a choice blessing and that only with years does a man enter into the calm understanding of life that makes him a suitable guide for the young"), and Nelson is impudent, vain, and, quarrelsome (" ... the boy's look was ancient, as if he knew everything already and would be pleased to forget it"). These are genial cartoonish figures, country bumpkins to be subjected to O'Connor's typical ritual of humbling, unmasking, and redemption. On its surface, "The Artificial Nigger" is a straightforward story, hardly more than an amusing anecdote: A back-country grandfather takes his grandson to Atlanta for a day visit with the secret intention of showing the child that "he had no cause for pride merely because he had been born in a city .... [Nelson would] see everything there was to see in a city so that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life." In Atlanta, the two become lost; quarrel; Mr. Head frightens Nelson by hiding from him, and then denying that Nelson is his grandson, when the child desperately needs him; Nelson is furious with Mr. Head and refuses to speak to him; at last, exhausted by their adventure, and having no one but each other, the two are reconciled; they return to their rural home, with Nelson determined never to journey to Atlanta again. There is a situation-comedy slickness to this resolution, which would seem to undercut the boy's discovery of blacks and his attraction to them; he seems to have reverted to his grandfather's ways, unilluminated by his grandfather's religious vision. Beneath the anecdotal surface, however, the story moves toward what O'Connor calls "an action of mercy"—the mysterious operation of grace in the characters' lives, intersecting as they do with both "real" and "artificial" Negroes, bringing Mr. Head to an eloquent epiphany that presumably changes his life and his subsequent attitude toward his grandson, himself, and God:
He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
Since there has been little to prepare us for Mr. Head's vision, little to suggest that he is a man deeply immersed in Christian orthodoxy and the Bible, this turn of mind is not very convincing; but "The Artificial Nigger" like O'Connor's fiction generally is not meant to be realistic.
Suffused with Catholic ideology, or in any case a passionate wish to believe in Christ and salvation by way of the Catholic Church, Flannery O'Connor is the most visual and relentlessly "symbolic" of writers. Her dreamlike rural landscapes are alive with that intense, primitive power of the inwardly focused imagination we find in the seventeenth-century New England Puritans and in other deeply religious individuals for whom nothing can be accidental, contingent, or without meaning; on the contrary, everything is charged with significance; as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has said, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." When such believers are gifted with imagination (and what is imagination but, in part, a mysterious metaphor-making capacity), the "natural" world scarcely exists except as a supernatural manifestation; surfaces are masks through which an underlying, far more significant reality asserts itself in ways that may be startling and original and sometimes grotesque. In Catholic orthodoxy, for instance, the Communion wafer, or Host, is not a symbol of Christ's bodily sacrifice, it is —literally—Christ's body. As O'Connor has said in "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," what she sees on the surface of the world is of interest to her only as she might penetrate "through it into an experience of mystery itself." In O'Connor's fiction, a bird-shaped waterstain on a bedroom ceiling is a manifestation of the Holy Ghost emblazoned in ice instead of fire ("The Enduring Chill"); the setting sun is "a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood ("A Temple of the Holy Ghost"); a fire started in a woods by vandals is a revisiting of the ordeal of Old Testament prophets in a fiery furnace ("A Circle in the Fire"). There are lyric passages in O'Connor that call to mind the luminous beauty of paintings by the astonishing seventeenth-century artist Georges de La Tour that portray ordinary domestic life (a woman placidly picking fleas off her body, for instance) in such vivid chiaroscuro as to imply a supernatural symbolic meaning. There are broadly comic passages that suggest the stylized caricatures of the American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. O'Connor spoke of herself as a "realist of distances" for whom the grotesque—the violent, comic, and caricatured—was of primary interest; the "ordinary aspects of daily life" were of little fictional interest. The "realist of distances" looks for a single image that will connect or combine or embody two points: One is a point in the concrete, the other a point not visible to the naked eye "but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees."1
Consequently, "The Artificial Nigger" is a highly artificial, self-consciously wrought story in the mode of 1950s symbolic prose. O'Connor's models may well have been Joseph Conrad (particularly Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, which were available in 1950 in a popular mass-market paperback with an introduction by the distinguished critic Albert J. Guerard) and James Joyce (particularly "Dubliners"), prose stylists notable for their reiterated patterns of imagery and their penchant for carefully phrased, musically cadenced final-paragraph epiphanies. The story's opening is ornamental and static as an altarpiece, with an elaborate description of moonlight in the room Mr. Head and Nelson share, in which "the color of silver"—"dignifying light"—"miraculous moonlight"—"snow-white in the moonlight" point emphatically away from the merely naturalistic; Mr. Head's trousers exude "an almost noble air, like the garment some great man had just flung to his servant"; the invisible narrator informs us, with startling erudition, that Mr. Head "might haye been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or, better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God's light to fly to the side of Tobias." Really? the reader thinks. Who is telling us this? And in what tone—mocking, whimsical, deadly serious?
Once past this tessellated opening, which seems to have been written for academic New Critics of the era, primed on Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, to decode, the story begins to breathe on its own, and O'Connor trusts to her characters, through dialogue, to engage and move us. Their wide-eyed adventures in Atlanta, which involve wandering into a Negro neighborhood, where they soon get lost, are reminiscent of the cruder, bawdier adventures of Virgil and Fonzo Snopes in Memphis in William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1931), which end with the country bumpkin Snopeses being brought to a Negro brothel by a Snopes cousin. Mr. Head and Nelson are both fascinated by and fearful of Negroes; their reconciliation is by way of their awed contemplation of an "artificial nigger "—a vulgar lawn ornament they discover in a white Atlanta neighborhood:
It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either .... [Mr. Head and Nelson] stood gazing at [him] as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.
The "artificial nigger" is a mysterious agent of grace, perhaps like the crucified Christ. In Mystery and Manners, the collection of essays and letters published in 1969, five years after her premature death at the age of thirty-nine, the author speaks straightforwardly of "The Artificial Nigger" in Catholic terms, stating that the "artificial nigger"2 reunites Mr. Head and Nelson in a way not to be explained except as a "working of grace."
Does "The Artificial Nigger" succeed as a story if the reader is unaware of, or unsympathetic with, its Christian subtext? Here, as elsewhere in O'Connor's most accomplished short fiction, the story moves with its own dramatic momentum; the Christian imagery is sensed rather than made explicit; for the skeleton beneath the story is not nearly so engaging as the story itself. Amid O'Connor's work, "The Artificial Nigger" is memorable for its portrayal of comic yet sympathetic characters and for the unexpected "mercy" of its conclusion.
1. Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor, eds, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), p. 42.
2. Mystery and Manners, p. 116. Here, the word "nigger" is used by Flannery O'Connor herself; it would appear to have been a usage common to her, as to her fellow Caucasian Georgians. Forty years after the composition of "The Artificial Nigger," the very word "nigger" has become so highly charged with political significance that any work of art containing it, especially by a white Southerner, is unwittingly abrasive, even provocative. O'Connor could not have foreseen how the word "nigger" would come to seem, in some quarters of America, an actual obscenity of the nature of those sexual obscenities she would not have wished to include in her fiction. (There is at least one distinguished American university in which a large-enrollment literature class petitioned successfully to have "The Artificial Nigger" removed from its syllabus as a racist text.)